No Longer Human Themes
The main themes in No Longer Human are crime and punishment, self and society, and fathers and sons.
- Crime and punishment: Yozo harbors intense feelings of guilt over his own abuse, creating a strong desire to be punished for what he views as his own wrongdoings.
- Self and society: Yozo’s lost sense of self and attempts to mask his true identity alienate him from the rest of society.
- Fathers and sons: The mistreatment Yozo receives from his father throughout his childhood affects Yozo’s perception of others as well as his own self-respect.
Crime and Punishment
When Yozo’s wife, Yoshiko, is sexually assaulted by an acquaintance of theirs, Yozo peculiarly considers the assailant irrelevant to the situation. Instead, he examines whether Yoshiko is to blame and whether he retains any right to judge her. There is an element of misogyny to his attitude, but in the end, Yozo does not even blame Yoshiko—he blames himself.
This event illuminates the true nature of Yozo’s life-long obsession with guilt and shame. In this particular instance, Yozo feels guilty because he did not do anything to stop the assault when he could have. He also feels ashamed because he understands that this is the result of a personal flaw—as he puts it, he is “without authority” or “a mask of anger.” However, this psychological complex of guilt and shame has been present since his childhood, and readers can surmise that his feelings about the assault likely mirror his feelings about his own abuse. “Is non-resistance a sin?” he asks God, but the implication is that he is speaking more about himself than he is about Yoshiko.
By extension, Yozo’s guilt and shame also explain his preoccupation with punishment. This preoccupation can be understood simply as Yozo’s way of seeking some form of absolution for the harm he has caused to others. Interestingly, however, there is a total lack of punishment in the novel: not just for Yozo, but also for the malefactors around him.
Yozo asks what the antonym of the word “crime” is—antonymous in the sense of one thing not being able to exist in the same space as the other—and comes up with “punishment.” According to him, crime is not incompatible with the law or the police and is therefore not antonymous with them. However, crime might be antonymous with true punishment; indeed, crime, the law, and the police are present in the novel, but there are no punishments. What, then, is a crime if it is antonymous with punishment? If a crime is something that is not felt by the criminal but is felt by the victim (just as Yozo blames himself and Yoshiko despite their being the victims of sexual assault), then perhaps a punishment would be capable of restoring innocence to the victim by allowing the criminal to feel the magnitude of their own crime.
When Yozo refers to his faith in God, he speaks about only believing in his punishment. It is possible to interpret this as a genuine act of supplication, one that transcends a simple desire for revenge. Theoretically, it might release Yozo from his sense of shame and guilt to see some affirmation that something wrong had been done. After all, when he is tied up at the police station, he purports to feel relief, an agreeable sensation.
Self and Society
Dazai’s discussion of self and society is accomplished largely through the symbolism of the face. In the novel’s prologue, the narrator meditates on the inscrutable qualities of Yozo’s face: uncannily forgettable and failing to give the impression of the face of a human being. On one hand, this section is meant to affirm Yozo’s self-perception that he is something monstrous, one somehow congenitally without the capacity to be a social being, to be human. On the other hand, this imagery also points to the alternate explanation, one arguably the true tragedy: it is not that Yozo has failed to be a human being but that he has failed to be recognized as one. As the face is fundamentally a symbol of both social and moral dignity (hence expressions like “to save face” or “to be unable...
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to show one’s face”), the disappearance or distortion of the face is thus, in essence, to have one’s dignity taken away. It is to experience shame, guilt, and mistreatment.
Additionally, the face is also the mask of the self that mediates all social interactions; the description of Yozo’s inhuman and forgettable face symbolizes his social impairments. He is unable to relate, to believe that love can exist between human beings. He is also unable to assert his existence or personhood among other people.
The disappearance and distortion of Yozo’s face, however, does not leave him entirely without hope. He finds comfort in the distorted faces in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Amedeo Modigliani, faces of what he calls “ghosts,” or people whose moral presence seems to have all but disappeared. His encounter with these paintings gives him the epiphany that, as he puts it, perhaps in art one has the capacity to “after repeated wounds and intimidations at the hands of . . . human beings . . . depict these monsters just as they had appeared.” Yozo takes up painting for a time, with a focus on self-portraits. There he finds, if only briefly, a way to recover the face that he has lost.
Fathers and Sons
Yozo’s father exerts an invisible but consistent presence throughout the story. Curiously, whatever happened between them in the past, Yozo is not willing to reference or even imply it. Aside from one story from his childhood, he does not mention any other interactions with his father. The reader is instead left to deduce the probable events simply based on Yozo’s reactions. Yozo’s unnaturally fearful stance around other people mirrors his fearful reactions to his father; the way he describes a fear that people around him will suddenly erupt into violence—that they are poised to lash out at any moment—thus hints at the treatment he has received from his father.
Yozo bears the belief that he was somehow born with a socio-moral deformity, that God does not listen to boys who disobey their fathers, and that he deserves every stroke of wrath he receives from other people. Near the end of the novel, the madam of the bar in Kyobashi points to Yozo’s father as the cause of Yozo’s alcoholism. Whether or not this is true, it is hard to deny that Yozo’s father had a strong effect on the development of Yozo’s personality and his beliefs about other people and himself.
Last Updated September 5, 2023.
No Longer Human by Shūji Tsushima explores various themes that, collectively, form a singular thesis to the story of the main character, Yozo. The novel examines the nihilist element of existentialism, and one could label Tsushima's novel as an existentialist work, similar to those by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The novel itself is heavily autobiographical, as the events portrayed in the story are inspired by the experiences of the author. One of the most prominent themes in the novel is alienation. There is a consistent struggle between the individual and the society in which he lives in.
At an early age, Yozo realizes that people are deceptive and fake. For instance, the friends of his father opine that the political meeting his father organized is stupid. This is said behind his father's back; however, they compliment his father about the meeting in front of his face. This idea of duality is also reflected in Yozo's artistic endeavors. He paints beautiful works for others but creates caricature-like self-portraits for his own personal amusement.
The duality of the public life and the private world is displayed throughout the novel. This duality of an outer- and inner-self emphasizes the theme of alienation from humanity.